How to Blow a Presentation to the C-Suite

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Divya, a director who leads a large engineering team, was invited to a two-day retreat with the CEO and senior executives of her Fortune 50 company. She and 30 of her high-potential peers were excited to rub shoulders with the leadership team.

The purpose of the retreat was to expose up-and-coming leaders to broader challenges, expand their network across silos, and, of course, give them an opportunity to connect personally with C-suite executives.

The session kicked off with participants dividing into small teams to tackle company-wide strategic challenges. This was a rare opportunity to present directly in front of the CEO, so Divya and her teammates worked hard to research their assigned topic, frame the specific challenge, and debate different ideas and solutions. Instead of hanging out at the bar after dinner, they worked far into the night finalizing their presentation. Divya was selected as the spokesperson

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9 Words and Phrases You’re Probably Using Wrong

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Many times, especially in business settings, people use words that they think they know — but don’t. Although they do this in an effort to sound intelligent and sophisticated, it backfires badly, because even one small slip-up can cause an audience to focus on only that, not the speaker’s ideas. Sure, saying the wrong word (usually) isn’t a game-changer. But if you make that kind of mistake, it sets you up for a question that no one wants clients, coworkers, or employers to begin asking: “Are you really that smart?”

Think it can’t happen to you? We’ve heard horror stories: people laughing behind a prominent CEO’s back for his not understanding the correct use of a business term; a corporate lawyer saying “tenant” (a renter) instead of “tenet” (a belief); an employee toasting her supervisor as the “penultimate” leader (which doesn’t mean “ultimate” but

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The Problem with Using “I Statements” at Work

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It has become common advice for businesspeople to use “I statements” — such as, “I feel frustrated that you missed the budget deadline twice” — as a way to raise challenging conversations without causing colleagues to feel blamed or under attack. Indeed, I statements may be helpful during situations in which you have a close personal relationship to a colleague who cares about your well-being, or when you want to show that a particular issue has moral implications for you.

But in most cases, I statements are more likely to undercut your argument than to strengthen it. Here are three reasons why I statements backfire, and what you can do instead.

They can be seen as expressions of emotionalism, particularly when they’re used by women. One vice president I coached was frustrated by a decision her executive team was planning to make. She sought advice

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Research: Perspective-Taking Doesn’t Help You Understand What Others Want

Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, realized that being a good leader required being a good mind reader. “I see my task as serving the majority of people,” he said in an interview to Forbes. “The question is, how do you find out what they want?”

For many business leaders who want to understand the minds of their employees, customers, or competitors, the answer seems obvious: Do some perspective-taking. That is, do your best to deliberately try to see things from the other person’s point of view, imagining that you were in his or her shoes.

In his classic best seller, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie describes a key principle: “Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.” Carnegie suggested this was the most important principle in the entire book: “If out of reading this book you get just one

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The Virtual Work Skills You Need — Even If You Never Work Remotely

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Maintaining strong, productive relationships with clients and co-workers can be challenging when you never see the person you’re working with. Yet, it is common to have ongoing work relationships – sometimes lasting years — with people you’ve never met in person.

We often think of “virtual work” as working with someone located outside an office, or in another city or country. This type of work is on the rise: a 2017 Gallup report found 43% of American employees work remotely; in another survey, 48% of respondents reported that a majority of their virtual teamwork involved members from other cultures.

However, virtual work also encompasses how we are turning to technology to conduct business with nearby colleagues, sometimes within the same building or campus. At a large consumer-products firm where we’ve been conducting research, an HR director recounted the changes she witnessed in employees located in two

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The Words and Phrases to Use — and to Avoid — When Talking to Customers

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The key to any successful relationship is effective communication. In the business world, this means trying to understand what consumers and clients are saying, and responding to them in ways that reflect that understanding. For the most part, however, the way businesses have used language to persuade, satisfy, or rectify has been more art than science.

The retail world in particular abounds with catch-phrases, habits, and commonly copied templates: “Say it with a smile.” “Never say no.” “Sorry is a magic word.” “A person’s own name is the sweetest sound in any language.” But do these and other long-held tips about how to speak to customers really work?

Studying the effectiveness of the words businesses use to talk to customers is tricky, but the rise of digital communications, social media, and big data is producing massive amounts of text that researchers can analyze

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The Art of the Elevator Pitch

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Long before your favorite movie made it to a theater near you, it was presented in a pitch meeting. Hollywood screenwriters typically get three to five minutes to propose an idea, but it takes only around 45 seconds for producers to know if they want to invest. Specifically, producers are listening for a logline: one or two sentences that explain what the movie is about. If there is no logline, more often than not, there is no sale.

A winning pitch starts with a winning logline — a valuable lesson for innovators in any field. The most valuable innovations offer novel solutions to challenging problems. But without the support of investors, even the best ideas might never get off the ground. To influence the people who can turn your idea into a reality, you need to deliver your pitch in an exciting and straightforward way. All this

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How to Get Better at Reading People from Different Cultures

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Body language varies significantly across cultures. What is considered rude or foolish in a Nordic country may be welcomed as warm and friendly in an African one. What a Canadian businessperson would perceive as arrogant, an American executive may see as healthy confidence.

But what remains consistent across all known cultures are microexpressions. These brief, involuntary flashes of facial expression reveal our true feelings about another person or situation.

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Photos courtesy of the Center For Body Language.

People might try to hide or obscure them in different ways informed by culture, but to a practiced reader the true emotions are always visible. Consider the contrast in expressiveness between Filipino and Japanese people. In the Philippines, showing emotion — both positive and negative — is a sign of openness and honesty. In Japan, the opposite is true. Visible negative emotion is seen as rude or hostile, while expressing

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Research: Simple Prompts Can Get Women to Negotiate More Like Men, and Vice Versa

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Do we lie to get what we want out of negotiations?

That depends, according to forthcoming research I conducted with  Jason Pierce of the University of North Carolina, Greensborough. We found that the likelihood of engaging in unethical behavior during negotiation is related strongly to gender: men are more likely to act deceptively than women are.

The difference in bargaining behavior is linked to negotiators’ sense of competitiveness and empathy. In negotiations, men tend to embrace a competitive mode that motivates unethical behavior to get ahead, whereas women opt for an empathic approach, leading to less deceptive behavior.

But it turns out it is startlingly simple to “activate” the competitiveness and empathic motives.  And, when we activate these different motives, both women and men act more like the other gender in bargaining situations.

Gender and Negotiation

My interest in this research area grew partly out of

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Why Bcc-ing the Boss Is a Bad Practice

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Imagine you’re drafting an email about a sensitive project when you realize you need to keep your supervisor in the loop. You decide to Bcc her on the email. Later, the rest of the team finds out. How does this make them feel?

Email continues to be one of the most common ways people communicate at work — and one of the most common ways people miscommunicate at work. The Cc and Bcc functions can corrode trust and cloud intentions. To explore how senders and recipients interpret the use of these tools, we conducted a series of five experimental studies in which a total of 694 working adults participated.

In our first study, we wanted to explore how people perceive the use of Bcc relative to the use of Cc. We invited working adults (75 females and 41 males; average work experience of 10.75 years) via

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When Is It OK to Tell a Well-Meaning Lie?

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A manager gives an employee overly-positive feedback to boost their confidence. A doctor gives a patient a too-rosy prognosis to foster hope. A government official conceals a security threat to prevent widespread panic.

These are relatively understandable scenarios in which an individual tells a lie because they think they are helping someone. In each case, however, it’s unclear whether the lie actually makes the recipients better off. Employees could benefit from honest criticism in order to improve; patients may benefit from a candid prognosis; citizens might take actions to make themselves less vulnerable to security threats.

Given the ethical issues surrounding deception, how can one be sure when telling a well-meaning lie is the right thing to do — and when it’s not?

Some would argue that deceiving others is never ethical, especially in today’s corporate climate. As reports of fraud, bribery, and privacy breaches abound,

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Why Women Stay Out of the Spotlight at Work

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To get ahead in the workplace, you have to be seen. Being visible at work allows employees to demonstrate their skills, land prominent assignments, and build strategic relationships.

For women, however, the importance of visibility creates a conundrum.

On the one hand, women’s contributions are systematically overlooked at work. This limits their professional advancement and helps to explain why the senior levels of organizations remain overwhelmingly male. Yet when women try to make themselves more visible, they can face backlash for violating expectations about how women should behave, and risk losing their hard-won career gains.

How do women navigate this no-win situation?

In 2013 we embedded ourselves in a women’s professional development program at a large nonprofit organization in the U.S. to find out. Working with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, we conducted 86 in-depth interviews with women in the program, observed 36

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Poor Communicators

Is miscommunication a constant problem at your workplace? In this episode of HBR’s advice podcast, Dear HBR:, cohosts Alison Beard and Dan McGinn answer your questions with the help of Holly Weeks, a lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the author of Failure to Communicate. They talk through what to do when your coworker won’t stop talking, your boss overcommunicates with everyone on a project, or a leader keeps changing what you’re supposed to do.

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Listen to more episodes and find out how to subscribe on the Dear HBR: page. Send in your questions about workplace dilemmas by emailing Dan and Alison at dearhbr@hbr.org.

From Alison and Dan’s reading list for this episode:

Book: Failure to Communicate by Holly Weeks — “It helps to think of a tough conversation as a landscape through which we and our counterpart move. If we

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16-49-81

What do these numbers mean to you?

At a recent offsite, during our conversation about evolving our communication patterns (which I refer to, in my head, as “the Matrix”), Ryan said “16-49-81.” Everyone stared at him and I responded “4-squared, 7-squared, 9-squared.” Then, everyone nodded their heads but were probably thinking “these guys are numerology goofballs.”

But then Ryan said, “Metcalfe’s Law” and everyone immediately understood.

When we were just four partners, our communication matrix was 16. We added three new partners and it became 49. We recently added a General Counsel to our team and consciously included our CFO in the communication matrix, so now it’s 81.

81 is a lot different than 16. Our communication matrix is highly optimized (and something we are extremely focused on as a key attribute of what we do), but Ryan was pointing out that we needed to

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How to Stop Saying “Um,” “Ah,” and “You Know”

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Um.

Ah.

So.

You Know.

Like.

Right?

Well.

When we find ourselves rattled while speaking — whether we’re nervous, distracted, or at a loss for what comes next — it’s easy to lean on filler words. These may give us a moment to collect our thoughts before we press on, and in some cases, they may be useful indicators that the audience should pay special attention to what comes next. But when we start to overuse them, they become crutches — academics call them disfluencies — that diminish our credibility and distract from our message.

Using research that incorporates behavioral science, AI, and data, the people science firm I run, Quantified Communications, determined that the optimum frequency is about one filler per minute, but the average speaker uses five fillers per minute — or, one every twelve seconds.

So let’s take a look at what the

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What to Do When Each Department Uses Different Words to Describe the Same Thing

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We’ve all experienced some version of this problem: Ask “how many customers do we have?” and the marketing team provides one answer, sales a second, and accounting a third. Each department trusts its own system, but when the task at hand requires that data be shared across silos, the company’s various systems simply do not talk to one and other.

The problem arises because different systems employ different definitions of key terms. Thus, the term “customer” can mean a potential buyer to the marketing department, the person who signed the purchase order to sales, and the legal entity that it bills to accounting. Then people misunderstand the data and make mistakes. These issues grow more important as companies try to pull more and more disparate data together — to develop predictive models using machine learning, for example.

Specialized vocabularies develop in the business world every day to

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How to Pump Yourself Up Before a Presentation (or Calm Yourself Down)

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Public speaking affects people in different ways. Some people get jittery and anxious before they talk; they need to spend time calming themselves down before they go onstage.

Other people want to make sure they have extra energy when they’re in front of an audience. These people need to spend time amping themselves up before a talk — doing whatever helps them feel invigorated.

My pre-talk ritual has always been to be still; I would consider this a spiritual ritual. I’ll typically find a dark spot backstage to center myself, exhale calmly, and create quiet space in my head. Meanwhile, I interviewed over 40 professional speakers some of who have a more amp-it-up ritual, like doing power poses or rocking out to heavy metal bands.

Out of curiosity, I decided to try out some of these different, energizing pre-talk rituals before my last big keynote. I

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The 2 Types of Respect Leaders Must Show

Kristie Rogers, an assistant professor of management at Marquette University, has identified a free and abundant resource most leaders aren’t giving employees enough of: respect. She explains the two types of workplace respect, how to communicate them, and what happens when you don’t foster both. Rogers is the author of the article “Do Your Employees Feel Respected?” in the July–August 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review.

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7 Skills That Aren’t About to Be Automated

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Today’s young professionals grew up in an age of mind-boggling technological change, seeing the growth of the internet, the invention of the smartphone, and the development of machine-learning systems. These advances all point toward the total automation of our lives, including the way we work and do business. It’s no wonder, then, that young people are anxious about their ability to compete in the job market. As executives who have spent our lives assessing and implementing digital technology in every type of organization, we often get asked by them: “What should I learn today so that I’ll have a job in the future?” In what follows we’ll share seven skills that can not only make you unable to be automated, but will make you employable no matter what the future holds. 

Communication. In a world where U.S. adults’ total media usage is nearly 12

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If You Say Something Is “Likely,” How Likely Do People Think It Is?

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People use imprecise words to describe the chance of events all the time — “It’s likely to rain,” or “There’s a real possibility they’ll launch before us,” or “It’s doubtful the nurses will strike.” Not only are such probabilistic terms subjective, but they also can have widely different interpretations. One person’s “pretty likely” is another’s “far from certain.” Our research shows just how broad these gaps in understanding can be and the types of problems that can flow from these differences in interpretation.

In a famous example (at least, it’s famous if you’re into this kind of thing), in March 1951, the CIA’s Office of National Estimates published a document suggesting that a Soviet attack on Yugoslavia within the year was a “serious possibility.” Sherman Kent, a professor of history at Yale who was called to Washington, D.C. to co-run the Office of

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